Category Archives: Nuts / Seeds

Wetland Plants: Pickerelweed

Photo of Pickerelweed

One morning earlier this month, I spent a few hours kayaking in a shallow pond that was home to a vast colony of blooming Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata). I've known, or at least recognized, Pickerelweed, for over a decade now as a common aquatic plant with arrow-shaped leaves and a blue-purple flower spike, but I'd never looked at the plant's flowers up close -- they are so hairy.

According to John Eastman (The Book of Swamp and Bog, 1994, p. 143), dragonfly and damselfly nymphs commonly climb up Pickerelweed plants when they're ready to transform into winged adults and leave their empty exoskeletons behind as evidence.

Eastman also notes that various dabbling ducks, such as American Black Duck, Mallard, and Northern Pintail, eat the seeds of Pickerelweed, which ripen in late summer. Though I've not yet tried them, humans can also eat the seeds raw, roasted, or boiled. For more details on human uses, see Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 166) by Arthur Haines.

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Tiny Flowers: Shepherd’s-purse

Photo of Shepherd's-purse flowers

Now that the green season has taken hold and a handful of wildflowers are blooming, it's time again to break out Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. I noticed a plant with tiny (<1/4") white flowers last week in Wells and was pretty sure I knew who I'd found. Keying out the plant confirmed my hunch.

I began by determining the plant's 3-digit code:

Flower type: 4 Regular Parts (4--)
Plant type: Wildflowers with Alternate leaves (43-)
Leaf type: Leaves Toothed or Lobed (433)*

Then, on page 4, under group 433, the key asked if the flowers were yellow (no) or white, pink, or purple (yes), and if the leaves had an arrow-shaped base, which clasped the stem (yes, though this is not well depicted in my photos) or were not arrow-shaped (no). The key then pointed to page 136.

Of the six plants described on that page, only one description fit my mystery plant. Basal leaves deeply lobed; pods triangular (to me the pods are triangular/heart-shaped). A drawing of the plant on page 150 provided visual confirmation. The plant I'd located was Capsella bursa-pastoris, known as Shepherd's-purse, a member of the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family.

Shepherd's-purse is a widespread, weedy species who typically grows in disturbed soil in full sun. The flowers, immature seed pods, and tender leaves and shoots are edible, especially for those who enjoy a spicy mustard flavor (boiling can reduce the flavor, if desired). The mature pods can also be used as a spice. Arthur Haines documents many medicinal uses for this herbaceous annual in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 2, 2015, p. 126-27). You can find more photos of Shepherd's-purse at GoBotany.

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*Note: Looking at the basal leaves (instead of the stem leaves), you might wonder whether they're considered divided or toothed/lobed. Newcomb's guide accounts for this confusion by directing you to Shepherd's-purse whether you choose the former or the latter.

Foraging Wild Seeds: Spotted Touch-me-not

Photo of Spotted Touch-me-not

Once you've met Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) you'll likely never forget her. While the orange flowers of this plant are showy and distinct, the narrow fruit capsules are what grab my attention. Foraging teacher Russ Cohen first revealed to me the inner beauty of this species -- also known by the common name Jewelweed -- during one of his public walks. (If you've studied with Russ and met this plant, you likely know where this post is headed).

To experience the plant's seedy secret, start by locating a thriving population. Spotted Touch-me-not favors moist soils, so scan the edges of streams, ponds, and other wetlands for orange flowers. Next, look for the 1" long green capsules. Once ripe these capsules will explode at the slightest touch, so grab one carefully so as to capture the entire contents in your hand. Now take one of the newly unveiled seeds, rub off the seed coat (which is brown when mature), and witness the tiny light blue seed. I bet you didn't expect that!

If that's not impressive enough, the seeds themselves, with or without the seed coat, taste like walnuts. I've never consumed them in quantity, but enjoy snacking on a dozen or so when I happen upon a fruit-filled patch in late summer. And so long as the plant is flowering, be alert for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who enjoy nectaring on the flowers of this widespread native annual.

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Winter Shrub ID: Beaked Hazelnut

Photo of Beaked Hazelnut catkins

There are few New England shrub species who have flower catkins on winter twigs. Among those who do include Sweetgale (Myrica gale), Sweet-fern, Speckled Alder, American Hazelnut, and the shrub featured here, Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta). It won't be long before these male flower catkins elongate and release their pollen, but for now they wait. The closely related American Hazelnut (C. americana) typically has longer catkins, hairier twigs, and blunter end buds vs. the short catkins, mostly hairless twigs, and more pointed end buds of Beaked Hazelnut. Both species have bark marked with light-colored lenticels. You can increase your chances of finding the edible nuts of Beaked Hazelnut by learning to recognize this species year-round in your local landscape. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Foraging Wild Nuts: Northern Red Oak

Photo of Northern Red Oak

I got serious about foraging acorns for the first time this fall. When ripe acorns started dropping, I started picking. I say ripe because not every acorn that falls is ripe. Early drops, which often have caps still firmly attached, tend to be of poor quality. It's better to avoid these early imposters, and wait for cap-less acorns to fall. (Ripe acorns can sometimes drop with their caps still on, but when you pick them up the caps will typically separate easily, instead of holding tight.) Continue reading Foraging Wild Nuts: Northern Red Oak